When I started my career in higher education in Chicago in 1979, none of my colleagues or students carried plastic water bottles around. Everyone used the drinking fountain and water from the tap, although Perrier (or another mineral water product) was a bourgeois status symbol and had become the alternative to a glass of California wine. By the time I retired from academia in 2005, Americans and Europeans alike were like toddlers carrying a plastic water bottle with them as though it was more precious than oxygen.
This was partly the PR genius of the soft drink companies that convinced people in the developed countries and eventually around the world that they are incomplete as human beings unless they are attached to a plastic water bottle (itself a source of chronic pollution) invariably found at every political, business, cultural meeting regardless of drinking water availability and proximity. Corporations trying to increase quarterly profits saw the future resting more with a “zero-calories, zero food-coloring, zero-taste product”, namely water, than with any change in human biology and the sudden craving for bottled water instead of the much healthier and free water on tap.
At the 5th global forum on water took place in Istanbul, US, China, Brazil, Canada Egypt and a few smaller countries with surplus water refused to recognize the need of water as a right, simply because they refuse to share it with countries lacking it. This understandable, given that some countries like China will be spending tens of billions on water projects to meet their needs for the century. The 23,000 representatives of 193 countries finally agreed that clean drinking water is not merely a human right but a human need at least in principle. Clearly, the technology already exists to purify water from various sources but it is very expensive and therein rests the opportunity of major multinational corporations that see water in the same manner as they viewed crude oil or any other mineral resource in the last 100 years.
A global industrial water exhibit with hundreds of companies in the ‘water business’ was concurrently held next door to the global forum on water. One billion people today do not have access to clean drinking water, resulting in one death per 8 seconds owing to water contaminants – a statistic that will increase dramatically in the future as private companies are buying water rights and making it increasingly difficult for one-sixth of the world’s population to afford it. In addition to the immediate problem posed by the inability of one billion people lacking access to drinking water, there is the added problem of climatic change and the current wasteful mode of water usage in all areas from farming and manufacturing to commercial and residential that will only make water more scarce and expensive. Such prospects mean huge profit opportunities for companies investing in water, companies that include not just soft-drink bottlers but petroleum corporations as well.
Just as oil became the source of economic antagonism/competition, diplomatic conflict, and wars in the 20th century, similarly water will be the source of conflict in this century, especially as the environment will be playing a far larger role in the political and social arenas against the need to pursue uninterrupted economic growth. Along with South Africa, the Czech Republic, and Lebanon, Latin American countries led by Bolivia demanded water is a need and not a right. They called on the UN to conduct the framework for action on global water management. The neo-liberal ideology since the 1980s assumed that the marketplace would best determine water availability, price, usage, conservation; and all of this would best serve the economic growth needs of each country.
The result has been devastation to the environment, high cost of water, and depopulation of areas where clean water is scarcely available. Corporate users of water are also responsible for industrial pollution that accounts for decreased availability of clean drinking water. For example, ENDESA, the large mining company in southern Chile has purchased 80 percent of the water rights in the Atakama desert in Antofagasta province. Similarly, the farmers in northern Chile are competing with the mining companies that pollute the rivers for fresh water. The result is depopulation of areas that lack water and concentration in large overpopulated urban centers. Chilean officials today acknowledge that while the marketplace may best serve the needs for vertical economic growth, it has not served domestic social needs.
Chile’s situation is not very different from that of many semi-developed and underdeveloped countries faced with industrial polluters that make large usage of water and serve mostly a foreign market with their products, forcing people to pay more for water. Given that North America has large fresh water resources, and that the most severe water shortages exist in the southern Hemisphere, the water issue is not much different from the old North-South divide that the UN and other forums have debated for decades without constructive solutions.
As much as those wedded to the neo-liberal ideology tend to have a strong emotional reaction to left-leaning political regimes like those of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, water is indeed a human need exactly as the latter defined it last week in Istanbul. If the UN does not plan to have a catalytic role on this issue, it will not be one person dying every 8 seconds but many more. Of the 6.5 billion on this planet, one billion people lack clean drinking water, while a handful already own the rights to fresh water and the technology for production and distribution. In this group are included the 793 billionaires, which according to FORBES, own $2.4 trillion in 2008, down from $4.4 trillion (or 10% of the entire world’s GDP) in 2007. One billion people today do not have access to clean drinking water, resulting in one death per 8 seconds owing to water contaminants – a statistic that will increase dramatically in the future as private companies are buying water rights and making it increasingly difficult for one-sixth of the world’s population to afford it.